The Anger Technique That's Better Than Anger Management
Emotional health requires that anger be processed and digested.
Posted Feb 02, 2015
- Count to 10.
- Pound a pillow.
- Go in your car and scream.
These are popular anger management techniques that you've probably heard over and over again, and maybe even tried.
If you try to manage your anger using these techniques and they don't help, it's not because you're doing them wrong; it's because the techniques themselves are outdated. We have learned a lot since the 1970s!
The problem with mainstream anger-management techniques is that the end goal is to control or contain your anger, rather than to heal or to resolve the problems your anger has tried to bring to your attention. If you try to manage your anger, all you'll do is temporarily stem the overflow of emotions until the next time your buttons get pressed.
Emotional health requires that anger be processed and digested, or it'll keep recycling and resurfacing.
Anger is an emotional energy that resides in our body and mind until it runs its course. Your anger can teach you about yourself—what's important to you, what your sensitivities are, where your boundaries lie—but you have to listen to it to learn anything. If you can catch the internal signal or clue that anger is on the way, you can switch to a mindset of curiosity and self-investigation about what your anger is trying to say.
To learn from your anger and not just react to triggers with rage or passive-aggression, you don't need anger management; you need impulse control techniques.
If you stop yourself before you discharge your anger or bury it, you give yourself the opportunity to choose how to respond to it. Impulse control techniques can turn an out-of-control life into one that is productive, fulfilling, and ripe with meaningful, loving relationships.
So how do you do it?
The first step toward exploring and learning from your anger is to discover what triggers it. You can use mindfulness—actively and openly paying attention to your emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations without judgment—to discover what causes you to dump or stuff anger.
Your anger triggers may include:
- Situations that you feel are unfair or unjust.
- Actions that cause you to feel disrespected, hurt, frustrated, or disappointed.
- Things you simply don't like, such as irritations and annoyances.
The second step is to learn how to catch the impulse that precedes your anger. You may not be aware of it at the time, but there is always an impulse that comes before your angry outburst or passive-aggressiveness. Anger impulses are the bodily sensations and thoughts that come after the anger trigger. It may feel like anger and the anger impulse is one and the same, but they're not.
Some common anger impulses are:
- Feeling hot
- Feeling tension in your neck
- Raising your voice and changing its tone
- Stonewalling others
- Sighing frequently and loudly
- Feeling threatened
- Feeling fear or jealousy
- Feeling irritable
- Fantasizing about revenge or aggression
- Ruminating on the anger trigger
Now that you've used mindfulness to arm yourself with a new awareness of your anger triggers and impulses, you are ready for the last step: impulse control techniques. If you can catch and control your anger impulses, you can give yourself the mental space needed to respond rather than to simply react to whatever it is that has made you angry. The following impulse control techniques are tailored to your type of anger:
Anger dumpers: The goal is to get calm and keep the charge in your body rather than venting or unloading it. First, give yourself a time out. Close your eyes and take several slow, deep breaths. Count to 10 (or 20 if you need to) while breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Second, talk to yourself. Tell yourself to relax and not react, and that it's okay to sit with the feelings. If you can imagine a safe, soothing place to retreat, go there now.
Anger withholders: The goal is to stay present in your body and not run away. To ground yourself in the moment, you can try different containment exercises. Hug yourself tight and feel that you're really there. Or, while sitting or standing, grip your opposite forearm in each hand and knead your skin. Keep your eyes open during both exercises and focus on staying in your body.
Going forward as you experiment with these techniques and perfect them, remember that thoughts always come before feelings. It's not what happens to you but what you think about what happens that determines how you feel. You always have the option, whether you realize it or not, to stop and explore the anger, learn from it, and release it, rather than react to it in the same old destructive way.
For more in-depth details on my 5-step approach to releasing anger, see my book, Mindful Anger.